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ONCE MANY, MANY YEARS AGO, in a small village named Conza della Campania in the province of Avellino, my maternal great-grandfather Michele Conte fell in love with the younger of two daughters, but by tradition he was obligated to marry the older sister, Concetta. He followed the rules of the southern Italian village, and Concetta bore him two children, my grandfather Natale and, some years later, his brother Antonio. Still, Michele couldn't resist the beauty of Concetta's younger sister, and he had a daughter by this woman.
As her sister's belly expanded, my great-grandmother grew more and more agitated, until she became very ill. My great-grandfather, in a loveless marriage and deeply unhappy at the prospect of living with a mentally unstable woman, placed his wife in a home for lunatics that was run by local nuns. Under the sisters' watch and care Concetta Conte remained there, I am told, for the rest of her days, sitting quietly in a chair weaving lace, each pull and tug of the thread a sedative for the pain. My great-grandfather journeyed on his own to America to find workon the railroad and raise enough money to send for his young sons, Natale and Antonio. But he was killed on the job and the two boys had to fend for themselves in Conza.
In this same village, my great-grandmother Rosa La Riccia was married to Michele Cantarella, a difficult, ill-tempered man. She bore him my grandmother Maria, my great-uncle Pasquale, and twins who died in childbirth. After the arduous labor of the still births, my great-grandfather sent Rosa back to work in the fields, but she was extremely weak and soon died of a hemorrhage. Michele got remarried, to a cruel woman who as a stepmother routinely beat her children.
Upon this vale of tears my maternal grandparents Natale Conte and Maria Cantarella met, teenagers deprived of their mothers. They married in 1906, when they were both twenty years old. A few years later, my grandfather left southern Italy for America to earn enough money to send for his wife, her brother Pasquale, and his brother. Antonio, barely a teenager, was fearful of making the trip, and decided to stay behind. The brothers corresponded but never met again. My grandfather insisted that he would one day return to southern Italy to retire, but he died years before his dream could take place. No one from my immediate family had ever seen the town of Conza della Campania until I traveled there in 1996 to visit Antonio's children.
These are the tales that have been told to me. The truth that remains is the truth of one hundred years of time.
Avellino is 165 miles south of Rome; Conza della Campania is a little over 40 miles east of Avellino, resting mid-ankle on the southern boot. My father's family lived further south in the province of Potenza, in the town of Picerno. Before I had traveled south, I felt a stronger tie to Avellino than to Potenza, strangely connected to it. I had heard my mother speak of "provinch d'Avelline," using a dialect pronunciation. Provinch d'Avelline, she said, drawing the words close together with a certainty that has made her the standard-bearer of her parents' memories. Without ever having seen the land, she confidently claimed the hazy space between possession and loss, the knowledge of a palpable yet irretrievable past.
I may have shared my mother's sense of belonging because I look more like her than like my father. I cannot forget a conversation with a man I met years ago in Rome's Piazza Navona, who, after talking to me for a few minutes, knowing only that I was Italian-American, said, "You look like all the girls from Avellino." In the Eternal City, I learned that my face had both a history and a future. The past becomes more real when a physical trail leads us to it.
The journey from Conza to Avellino once took a day and a half by donkey and two-wheeled cart. Transportation improved in 1895, when the first railway was built and one slow erratic train chugged between the small farming village and the provincial capital. My mother's parents probably went to Avellino only a few times in their lives, where they would have obtained the essential papers to leave for America.
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I can still remember the day when my ethnicity no longer felt like the tag line of my narrative, reluctantly affixed to my American self, but instead signified an inescapable me. I was a teenager standing in line before gym class, and we began to strut in sync, bare legs and barely covered bodies, to the gymnasium. Our uniforms were the baby blue of surgeons' gowns and prison uniforms. I felt both sick (or I feigned physical illness) and trapped (excuses about stomachaches rarely worked) during those fifty forced minutes of exercise.
Gym class, humiliating gym class, had provoked earlier difficult episodes. Once, in junior high—that particular place and time in which sameness is the prize, and a seed of adolescent difference could sprout into a field of skunk cabbage—a blond girl who had already developed curves that had captured the attention of a league of boys mentioned with a bored nonchalance how she needed to shave her legs. The blond girl's legs were as smooth and silky as a newly varnished oak floor, and I couldn't imagine why she'd put a razor to her skin. The hair on my legs, however, looked like a bed of wilted grass dipped in black ink.
"I need to shave too," I naïvely replied. To share the truth—that my mother thought I was too young to have a woman's legs—would have been mortifying, but I also lacked the instinct to distract her with a line like "You know, Cybill Shepherd couldn't hold a candle to your thighs," and quickly change the topic. The look of horror on that girl's face when she peered down at my calves is as clear to me today as it was back then in 1973. I'm sure she had never encountered the hirsute beauty of the Italian-American body.
The girl, too young to be tactful, revealed her thoughts in wide-eyed disbelief. At about the same time, I received a more discreet reaction to my appearance from a motherly neighbor who casually mentioned that I should bleach my dark arm hair blond. For much of my childhood I stood out in homogenized suburbia (hard as I tried to mask the Italian side of my hyphen); I grew up in a neighborhood where, in every other home, Mazola poured from clear plastic bottles, while we lifted heavy golden-colored tins of olive oil. To a child who wished to imitate others with the precision of a forger's brush, that was a clumsy, humiliating distinction. While such incidents embarrassed me, none was as difficult as this conversation before gym class:
"You were shopping at Saks the other day?" the popular girl next to me asked.
"Uh-huh," I meekly replied. (She had never spoken to me before; in retrospect the visit to Saks probably provided a necessary credential.)
"Yeah, I told my mother, 'That's the smelly Italian girl who stands in front of me in gym class'"
I was stunned. I didn't move quickly enough in class even to perspire. But instead of challenging her, I just stood there. Silently. As she continued to chatter, I yearned to shed my smell, my self, that very instant. Standing in the powerless world of childhood, a world in which the words and actions of peers cast the parts that we play for years, I intuitively understood that I was bound to the sweat of my ancestors, peasants from southern Italy. Even the name of the region, the Mezzogiorno, or "midday," invokes an oppressive afternoon heat that parches the skin and then showers it with drops of sweat.
Yet despite my deep self-consciousness, the part of me that recognized the significance of a school social hierarchy was flattered: this pretty, popular girl was talking to me. Sloe-eyed with chocolate brown hair, she was Jewish; I could never be like the Waspy girls, but I could see myself as a darker, rawer version of her. We were both slightly above average height, but she was thin, shaved her legs, plucked her eyebrows, and dyed unwanted lip hairs blond with a jar of Jolene. I, on the other hand, was chubby, and had the leg hairs of a grizzly, a light mustache, and a bristly black feather of an eyebrow that rested proudly at the bottom of my forehead.
Comparing our basic similarities, I saw the potential for my own reform. So I decided that if she continued to befriend me, I would ignore the nasty comment. In the following weeks, I tried to ingratiate myself into her world and she began to accept me. But always she'd tell classmates about the incident that sparked our first conversation. "I saw her shopping at Saks," she would say with a high-pitched giggle, "and I told my mother, 'That's the smelly Italian girl who stands in front of me in gym class.'"
She never talked about the smelly girl, or that smelly girl who is Italian, but rather that "smelly Italian girl"—in other words, I was smelly because I was Italian. She also acted surprised to have seen me at Saks; with a popular girl's unfailing instinct for the social ladder, perhaps she found it amusing that an Italian girl, who should have been on the bottom rung, would shop in the town's fanciest store.
Soon sympathetic friends pulled me aside to say that I never smelled and she must have confused me with someone else. I burned with embarrassment, but politely nodded as they defended me. Looking back on those days, I must have believed them, since I did not begin to shower three times a day to escape my odors. Instead, I continued the same bath regimen (although I can't say precisely if it was every day or every other) and sprayed myself with a fragrance called Love's Fresh Lemon, marketed for teens with a popular Donovan song about wearing your love like heaven. Did I smell like hell and rotten lemons? Probably not. Rather than believing that I smelled, I accepted the definition of being smelly. That is, if someone thought I had a body odor, there must be something unpleasant about me that needed to be changed.
Gym class wasn't the only time I heard the words "Italian" and "smelly" placed together, like a pungent clove of garlic sweating in a pan of warm olive oil. A few months later, I was sitting in the cafeteria with my new gym pal and a friend of hers, sharing gossip and news between bites of our sandwiches. The other girl mentioned that her father was planning a trip to Italy, and my friend and I swayed in delight at the idea of traveling to Europe.
"Are you going with him?" we asked in an enthusiastic chorus.
"Are you kidding?" she replied with a girlish laugh. "And be around all those smelly Italians?"
Suellen Hoy, the author of a book on cleanliness, tells this anecdote: In 1957, when she was a teenager and had recently begun to shave, she was lounging at a pool with several other bare-legged friends. There they saw an older woman in a beautiful bathing suit reveal her hairy legs and armpits. Hoy was "shocked and repulsed" to see this woman's unsightly hair in public, and her girlfriends decided that the woman must be "foreign" because European women didn't shave. The incident, Hoy explains, first taught her about America's obsession with being clean. Not much has changed—she also cites a "Dear Abby" column from 1985 in which a reader advises that if "'Rapunzel Legs' [is] too lazy to shave, she should move to Europe." Another woman wrote in that Europeans who don't shave also "think sweat and other natural body odors are sexy. Pee-ooey!"
It may be a peculiarly American habit to associate leg hair with dirt. Ultimately, however, looking dark and unkempt because of unwanted body hair is very different from being called smelly. I wonder if I earned that label because I seemed more foreign than the rest of the girls in my class. Not that we were recent Italian immigrants; I am third-generation, the youngest of my grandparents' youngest-born. Yet around the same time as the gym incident, a teacher who called out my name for attendance on the first day of class asked if I spoke English.
The label "smelly Italian" was acceptable to many teenagers in my high school for another reason: body odor suggests that you are ill-bred, a member of the lower class. For centuries, the sweet scents of the upper class and the earthy smells of the lower class differentiated both groups in body and spirit. More than the clothes one wears or the language one speaks, the stink that fills the air of an unwashed person, the dirt and sweat that turn underarms and loins into a triangular estuary of odor, a repository of the unwanted emissions of our bodies, separates the classes. The "basement odor of the masses," as Flaubert once wrote, serves as one of the clearest demarcations between rich and poor.
The issue of smell and class plagued George Orwell for many years. In The Road to Wigan Pier, his treatise for a socialist state, Orwell wrote with characteristic bluntness that there are "four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering," that is, "the lower classes smell." Orwell reasoned that class equality could never be achieved if the bourgeoisie continued to consider the lower classes "inherently dirty," making olfactory distinctions between us and them. Such a judgment can be impenetrable, he claimed, because a physical feeling of dislike is far more difficult to transcend than an intellectual one.
Orwell may have paid particular attention to odors because as a child he had his own fears that he smelled bad. Describing his experiences as a scholarship student in an elite public school, Orwell wrote in his essay "Such, Such Were the Joys ...": "A child's belief in its own shortcomings is not much influenced by facts. I believed, for example, that I 'smelt,' but this was based simply on general probability. It was notorious that disagreeable people smelt, and therefore presumably I did so too."
Orwell thought that he was "disagreeable" because his family was poorer than those of the other boys at his school, who came from the highest quarters of English society. The writer, with his flawless understanding of England's class system, famously described his family's economic status as "lower-upper-middle class." But because class distinction is relative and children want more than anything to be like their peers, Orwell must have imagined that a lower-class boy smelled—and that he took on this trait.
I may have accepted my classmates' assumptions because my family's economic position could be described as deep in the basement of upper-middle-class life, or, more accurately, we lived a middle-middle-class life—in the strict American sense of annual income. (Orwell came from an established English family whose fortunes had dwindled.) The notion that I was called smelly because I was Italian seemed as logical a matter of cause and effect as that I was chubby because I ate brownies at lunch. Growing up in Short Hills, New Jersey, a suburb that produced debutantes just as Detroit manufactured steel, I learned as a child that the shrill whistle sounding every hour at the station signaled more than an approaching train: the town's dividing line was drawn at the railroad, and we were on the wrong side of the tracks. While many of my friends lived in sprawling ranch houses with stone patios and outdoor pools, our little split-level house in a new development had a modest lawn that blended into the same-sized property of our neighbors, who were mostly small businessmen, middle managers, and teachers. As my neighborhood pal would remind me, we lived in "the ghetto of Short Hills."
Perhaps any child who is poor among the rich learns to kowtow to the needs of the wealthy, and in doing so carries a deep sense of shame over her own inadequacies. The child intuits the sense of privilege that the rich share, and knows she'll be rewarded by indulging them, commenting on how lovely their house is, oohing and aahing at the wall of mirrors in the bathroom, enthusiastically accepting the gracious invitation to swim in their pool. Her role is to be a constant reminder, like a grandfather clock that chimes reassuringly, of just how much they have.
But people pride themselves on degrees of wealth, so I never forgot that the real "ghetto" was in a section of Millburn, the neighboring town where my father had grown up, that housed an enclave of Italian-Americans. Because Short Hills was part of Millburn Township, the poor kids and young gents went to school together (the public school was so good that there was not the usual channeling of the elite to private schools). In both junior high and high school, there were mainly middle-, upper-middle-, and upper-class teens. Latinos and African-Americans were still excluded back then, so the only people of color in my high school were the children of the housekeeper at the local Catholic church. That left the largest dark ethnic group: the lower-middle-class Italians from Millburn, and the only kids labeled with an ethnic slur.
In high school, the Italian-American boys were known as the "Ginzo Gang"; they were greasers with beat-up cars that first chugged, then soared, thanks to their work at the local gas station (Palumbo's), owned by the father of one of them. Olive-skinned and muscular, they were sexy in their crudeness; and their faint gasoline scent and oiled-down hair defined the image of Italian-Americans in our school. The young women who hung out with them had little separate identity other than as the girlfriends of the Ginzos.
The Ginzos were my rearview mirror, a reflection of the near past that I wished to move beyond. They were an acknowledgment of my heritage, a recognition that the small sum of money my mother had inherited from her parents, used as the down payment on our house in a neighborhood a mile away, allowed me to escape from their world. But who was I fooling? My grandfather, who started a small construction company, earned his money by digging the earth; sweat and dirt were part of me, an oath of fealty to my family's peasant past. Yet I preferred to bury the memories' of his labor, which provided us with some material comforts but not enough to rid me of the label of the "smelly Italian girl."
In the interval between the accusation of being smelly and an unspoken admission of my guilt, a denial of my ethnic self emerged. Unprepared to confront my fears, I responded like a criminal who'd do anything to get the charges dropped. If the cause of being called smelly were my Italian roots, then I would pretend not to be Italian.
At first I rejected the smells of my southern European heritage. Gone were the tastes and aromas of my youth: the sweet scent of tomato sauce simmering on the stove, soothing as a cup of tea on a rainy night; the paper-thin slices of prosciutto, salty and smooth on the tongue; and my own madeleine, oil-laden frying peppers, light green in color with long, curvaceous bodies that effortlessly glide down the throat and conjure up memories of summer day trips to Asbury Park, where we ate ham, Swiss, and fried pepper sandwiches prepared by my mother. Instead, I began to savor the old flavors of eastern Europe, new to my tongue: pickled herring and cured fish, sour and smoky, and the brisket I was served when I ate holiday meals with my new friend from gym class.
Decades later, when I told my Jewish husband that in high school I tried to assimilate by imitating his culture, he laughed. But in the uninformed world of the adolescent, narrow assumptions get made about the scheme of things. At the time, I didn't understand that the Jewish girls who zealously booked plastic surgery appointments with Howard Diamond, the Manhattan doctor famous for creating identical pug noses in Short Hills and Great Neck, Long Island, were undergoing a similar identity struggle.
Stripped of familiar smells, next I wanted to eliminate the extra baggage of vowels, those instant markers of ethnicity.
"Mom, why did you name me Maria?" went my familiar dinner-table question.
"Hun, why did we choose Maria?" she'd say, deferring to my father. He had wanted to name me Denise, after a Belgian child who greeted his troop during World War II and remained etched in his memory.
"Mama's name was Maria," my mom would add, interrupting her own question and recognizing that she was the keeper of tradition, the holder of the deciding vote. "Your father's mother was Maria, and I loved the actress Maria Montez."
Her last explanation was the consolation prize, the frayed ticket to the American scene that she had won and wished to hand to me. Naming me after a beautiful, vapid actress (Spanish, no less) would have revealed an unseen side of my mother, one that had rebelled against the expectation of having to show respect. A momentary fantasy, a chimera. I'm certain that I was named after my mother's mother.
But I would adopt the Montez interpretation. That both my grandmothers were named Maria bore little relevance at the time; a grade B movie actress, however, at least sounded glamorous.
"Why didn't you change our last name to Laurin?" I continued in my teenage whine. During these end-of-the-day efforts to sanitize myself, washing off an o seemed a clean, decisive stroke.
Only years later did I begin the precarious work of trying to replace the layers of ethnicity I had stripped away in order to dissociate myself from the smelly Italians. The alien surroundings of college fostered a nostalgia for familiar tastes and allowed me to appreciate the foods I had grown up with, although not everyone shared my enthusiasm. Once my freshman roommate approached me, her face a picture of compassion and concern, as I entered our tiny dorm room. How was my weak stomach? she asked. Momentarily befuddled, I soon realized that she had confused the pungent aroma of the provolone I had recently eaten with that of vomit, and believed that I had thrown up in our room.
By my early twenties, I learned more about the girl at the cafeteria table who talked about the smelly Italians. According to the local grapevine, her parents were getting divorced because her father had been making seasonal trips to Italy to visit his secret mistress and their two children. Now I realize that she probably was never invited on her father's frequent sojourns, and the thoughtless remark was the defense of an insecure child, rejected by a man too busy sniffing the earthy scents of Italians to spend much time with her.
Today I have a new fear about smell; I fear that I lack a defining odor. I feel removed from my own sense of smell and the images it could conjure. I feel a languorous appreciation for everyday scents, like my pots of dried lavender, whose wildflower fragrance has faded to a docile sachet, as its deep purple buds grew pale with streaks of beige, a graceful bow to domesticity and old age. I refuse to linger by the coffeepot and sniff my carefully chosen beans, or inhale their smoky end, first ground, then muddied and scorched by a hot rain; instead, I quickly dump the grounds and wash the pot in soapy water, just as I will rush to lather the summer heat off my body. No smell, no mess. Life is measured, careful, far removed from the chaos of dirt and its primitive pleasures, and the smelly label of my youth.
Clean, but without texture; scrubbed of the salty drops that tell our singular stories. I fear that after years of trying to rid myself of the perceived stench of my ethnic group and its musty-basement-class status, I sanitized my own voice, washed it away.
Certain incidents in life—like being told during gym class that you smell—become emotional markers, and around these events a series of reactions are set in motion: giving up pizza for pickled herring can take years to undo. I have recently come to notice how much time I spend scenting my body, covering it with colognes, milks, and creams, giving it a pleasant but artificial character, or voice, you could say. At first I was unaware that I had become perfume-obsessed, as people can often be unaware of their obsessions. But now I think I can link its beginnings to a time and a place.
Initially, I didn't realize the connection between a fragrance fixation and a freelance writing career, but neither did I fully understand that a spray of cologne can provide a narrative for your body in case your own story lacks luster. My aromatic addiction began when I decided not to return (after a brief stint in government) to the newspaper I had worked at for nearly a decade, which was as familiar as family. I was nervous about the decision to freelance, because it not only took away an important piece of identity but would force me to choose my subjects, instead of writing about what others expected of me. And perhaps even worse, telling people that you are a full-time freelancer sounds more like a euphemism for unemployment than an adult career choice. So I acted a bit like the child who leaves home for the first time: one part wants to go while the other kicks and drags his way down the stairs, clutching the newel post. The final decision to step out the door and not return to my old work home coincided with a surprise birthday gift from my husband, a five-day trip to Paris. A perfect distraction, except that I found myself spending a good part of the time thinking about a particular French cologne.
I would like to chalk it up to coincidence rather than to Freud that I had occasionally been wearing a French cologne with a light lemon scent and Roman emperor's name, Eau d'Hadrien, which seemed like an elegant version of the Love's Fresh Lemon of my youth. But maybe the alchemy of a new affection for Europe and my old need to hide Italian smells with lemons conjured an odd sensory experience—reluctance, relief!—when I first sniffed this cologne.
I went to a small Left Bank perfumery filled with fluted glass bottles capped in gold and bought my scent, one of my tasks in Paris, because it was cheaper there than back home. The saleswoman handed me the bag and then made an irresistible gesture: she sprayed my body, from my neck to my thighs, with cologne. Her hands flowed gently yet confidently around me, and the idea of being covered in fragrance, not frugally dabbed behind the ears, was so enticing that I went back to the store every day for a purchase and another spray. I had discovered a scented balm to soothe a shaky ego.
"Is this a gift for someone?" she asked upon my return.
"No, it's for me," I happily responded, waiting for the soft mist to drape me like a gossamer veil.
After that trip, I became even more attached to the fragrance, or perhaps the idea of this fragrance. In department stores, I allowed myself one indulgent purchase: hand cream, body lotion, perfumed body cream (my favorite—it's as if I'm covered in lemons and cream), soaps, other colognes to mix with my fragrance to create a new, layered smell—the possibilities seemed endless. I no longer just sprayed behind the ears but covered myself completely in the scent, letting the perfume conquer the blandness of a scrubbed self, an elixir to enliven a diffident voice.
I used to think that my guilt-free desire for an expensive French cologne meant that I was at least coming to terms with the embarrassing bourgeois side of myself, which capitalized on the chic of a European heritage rather than my real-life peasant roots. But now I realize that, like the young girl who wanted to deny her heritage, again I was ducking for cover. I never quite unlearned the lesson from gym class long ago, when the voices of my family and my past were silenced as I altered the scents surrounding me. It's easier to shower away a smell, to censor yourself with a scent, than to accept your body's signature, the rawness of odor and sweat.
The smelly Italian girl no longer exists, if she ever did. In addition to my fragrance, my body is practically hairless, waxed from lip to toe by a Gallic woman who says "Voilà" after finishing each leg and who reminisces about her country, sharing with me that she knows the colorist who knows the colorist who mixes the blond hair dye for Catherine Deneuve (her six strands of separation from true glamour). During the months between waxings, I let my leg hair grow long and I run my fingers through it, still mystified by the abundance of those dark strands that I wish to find beautiful, but that I ultimately decide to remove once again.
I have tried to escape the class boundaries of my youth, but sometimes, in that lonely space between me and the bathwater, I wonder what has become of my own smell, and what it would be like to uncover a voice that could tell the stories of my past.
Excerpted from Were You Always an Italian? by Maria Laurino Copyright ©2001 by Maria Laurino. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 6, 2002
As a 19-year-old Italian-American, I found this book to be extraordinarily insightful and valuable. Growing up in an extremely ethnic family, I found that the author touched upon a great deal of the conflicting feelings and resulting struggles I have encountered regarding my heritage. Issues such as prejudice and branding stereotypes that I have no doubt plagued many Italian-Americans. This book is a must for anyone who has ever felt alienated because of too many vowels in their last name or for anyone of Italian descent who did not like The Godfather.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.